Rossellini and Masaccio

by Sonya Friedman

So there was Roberto Rossellini in 1973, inside Santa Maria Novella in Florence, Italy, having a full-blooded choleric fit. Before him, Masaccio’s ground-breaking portrait of Christ on the cross. Around him, a blizzard of 35mm equipment: camera, lights, crew and a dolly with a special focus-pulling device on which RR delighted in wheeling around, operating it himself during shooting. Missing? The actor who was to play a priest railing against Masaccio for portraying Christ not as the radiant Son of God but as a wretched, almost naked man dying of torture. With Masaccio’s startling foreshortened perspective.

To play the priest, RR had chosen a Dutch tour guide, not an actor at all. At this point in RR’s long career, he preferred to cast the man-on-the-street – those he found to have “authentic” faces. Although the dialogue had been written in English (the reason I was there as dialogue writer), many of the “faces” couldn’t speak English. In fact, the “authentic” lordly Prince of the Medici, was really a taxi driver, an Italian-only speaker. A disaster. The non-English speaking actors were frantically moving their lips, in order to be dubbed later – babbling numbers, “trent-otto, cinquanta tre, venti quattro….”

The Dutch guide, however, did speak excellent English. But where was he? Nowhere. As time clicked by, minute by expensive minute, RR’s blood pressure clicked upwards, bloated vessel by vessel. What to do? How to avoid the sudden death – right before my eyes! – of one of Italy’s most beloved and innovator directors?

“Roberto,” I suddenly said, “why not change the priest to a nun? And why not have me play her? I know the lines. I wrote them. And I’m here.” RR’s tense, agitated features relaxed into a wide smile. “Mia ebrea atea!” (My Hebrew atheist!)

He called loudly, gestured widely, crew members hurried, nuns arrived. I was ushered into a large room, walls and ceilings of dark wood, low lights. The nuns, some serious, others giggling, brought out a nun’s habit, removed my profane clothing, and dressed me saintly, hood to foot. I was ushered back into the holy cathedral. RR was already stationed on his focus-pulling apparatus; camera, lights and mikes were ready.

“Azione” was called, and I went into my angry spiel, shaking a furious fist at the offending painting. Afterwards, I could tell by the crew’s reaction that I’d done well. A year later, when I saw the final film in a Manhattan movie theater, the sight of myself as a Catholic nun was quite startling, as well as the fact that I’d been dubbed, still in English, by a more practiced actress’s voice.

I was a Fulbright student at Italy’s State Film School (Il Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia) and then worked in the U.S. as a documentary filmmaker, and a sub-titler of foreign films – which is how I met Roberto Rossellini. He had been criticized for his less than-accurate dubbing. And even though he complained, “We Italians look at the eyes; you Americans watch the mouths?” – still, he hired me to write English dialogue for his new docu-fiction trilogy “The Age of the Medici.”